Outrage as ill children forced to wait for hours as parents try to find hospital parking space in Belfast
Seriously ill and disabled children are being forced to wait in vehicles for hours in a hospital car park as their stressed parents try to find a space, it has emerged.
Angry parents said they felt the "final straw" came after work vans and a skip were parked in disabled parking bays at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children during the last week.
One mother of an 11-year-old boy who underwent treatment for a brain tumour said action was needed now, as some parents are having to wait more than an hour to find a space for vital appointments.
A petition has been launched to force health chiefs to improve the 'diabolical' car parking facilities at the Royal.
The Belfast Trust said it has been "working hard" to try to solve the issue of congestion.
But families who face "frustrating, anxious waits" for a space say more must be done. Todd Vance was diagnosed with a brain tumour on Christmas Eve 2008 and the 11-year-old then underwent 92 weeks of chemotherapy.
His mother Ellen from Dundonald described trying to find a parking spot at times as "running the gauntlet".
The mother-of-three said during his treatment she had to wait up to an hour-and-a-half for a parking spot with her son, who at times was wheelchair-bound.
Parent, Bronagh Mason from Loughinisland, said the car parking situation was "diabolical". She said she was left shocked and annoyed after spotting vans in the disabled bays as she tried to get to an appointment with a consultant.
Ellen, a member Parents of Disabled Children Northern Ireland, which started the petition, said the situation was "unacceptable".
She said parents were almost always late for appointments due to the time needed to park in the inadequate car park for the children's hospital.
"We have children with special needs, both physical and mental, including children who are oxygen-dependant, so this is not acceptable to be waiting for long periods of time," she added.
"Many other parents also face the difficulty when we arrive to park in the disabled access at the side of the children's hospital. We have to vacate our car and leave our children unattended to gain access to the car park via the intercom service. This is situated on the opposite side of the road.
"It is an unacceptable situation and needs to be changed to accommodate easier access."
A spokeswoman for the Belfast Trust confirmed building contractors currently on site had parked in the disabled parking spaces.
"The trust's director of estate services contacted the lady who brought it to our attention. He apologised and ensured that this was put right immediately," the spokeswoman said.
"We have been working hard to try to solve the issue. We understand the distress that queuing causes to patients, their families and visitors.
"We have been reviewing car parking provision with the aim of providing more spaces."
The spokeswoman said the trust has submitted a strategic outline case to the Department of Health for additional car parking.
A spokesperson for the department said: "The minister has been made aware of the concerns of some parents regarding delays with car parking at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH), and he recognises the worry such a situation would cause.
"As these are operational issues which are a matter for the trust as part of its estates management role, it is appropriate that specific complaints are raised directly.
"Where complaints are raised they are dealt with as part of the HSC Complaints Procedure."
'People just abandon their cars'
Bronagh Mason, from Loughinisland, Co Down, has been travelling to the hospital for five years with her eight-year-old daughter Ciara.
"We are trying to sort out parking but we have very sick children," she said. "What really annoys me is our lives are already stressful.
"The situation is so bad there is a tiny roundabout at the children's hospital and people are just abandoning their cars," she said
"Ciara's appointment was for 10.30am last Thursday so I arrived at around 10am.
"When I saw the disabled car parking spaces filled with vans and a skip I just felt so angry. I asked them if they didn't mind moving, but they said they had permission to be there.
"I am well aware work has to be carried out but children still need to see their consultants. Something needs to be done."
'Queuing is last thing we need'
Ciara Johnson (33) from Waringstown travels to the hospital with her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Ben Johnson.
He has a condition called Pons Hypoplasia which means he is ventilator-dependent 24 hours a day and has had a tracheostomy, enabling him to breathe through a tube.
Because of his condition his parents have to bring an adapted buggy, ventilator, suction machine, oxygen and emergency kit bag to every appointment.
Ciara said the issue of finding parking just adds to the stress of the visit.
"It is awful. When your child is ill, the last thing you want to do is sit and queue to get in to a parking space to see them.
"Ben and I had a review last week and there were work vans and skips in the free disabled places at the side of the building."
'I worry we will miss appointment'
Todd Vance from Dundonald was diagnosed with a brain tumour on Christmas Eve 2008.
The 11-year-old then underwent 92 weeks of chemotherapy.
His mum Ellen (40) said the staff were fantastic but the experience of trying to find a parking spot for his appointments left her feeling "even more distressed".
"You are dealing with the stress of caring and supporting your son," she said.
"The last thing you need is to have to worry about this.
"I have mobility issues – I have arthritis – so getting out of the car to use the buzzer needed to get in to the car park can be difficult.
"And there were times when Todd was so weak from the treatment he had to use a wheelchair.
"When you are sitting waiting in the car your stress levels just continue to rise.
"You worry about missing appointments."
'Blocked disabled bay final straw'
Maura McCrystal (40) from Draperstown is the mother of five-year-old Jack.
She makes the 100-mile round-trip to the hospital and then home at least once a week.
"If my appointment is at 9.30am we would leave at 6.30am. It gives us about two hours to make our way to the hospital and then an hour to find and wait for a space.
"Jack's condition is still undiagnosed. He is wheelchair-bound and has an oxygen tank.
"I cannot fault the doctors, nurses and consultants. They saved Jack's life but the car park situation is just terrible.
"When I saw the builders' vans in the disabled spot I felt that was just the final straw.
"Jack will need treatment until he is at least 18. The thought of having to go through this situation ahead of appointments for another 13 years fills me with dread."